Talented Teens Succeed Amid Energetic Fun In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
– by Lee Greene
Before you squander any more time reading this review of the show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Craterian Theatre in Medford, OR, put this aside and go purchase tickets to see the show while you still have a chance. The show is a thorough winner, but there are only three performances in its Craterian run, and the opening performance on Thursday, March 3, 2016, which is reviewed here, is already history. That leaves YOU only two performances left to catch the show, today and tomorrow, if you’re lucky enough to be reading this review on its March 4, 2016 publication date.
The show has a long and celebrated history. It made its Broadway debut in 1961, was a hit for the creative team that brought it to Broadway (music by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert), winning SEVEN Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Author, Best Producer, Best Direction, Best Conductor, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in A Musical (Robert Morse in what proved to be a breakout role that cemented his career) and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in A Musical (Charles Nelson Reilly), as well as a Drama Critic Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (only the 4th musical to receive a Pulitzer). That original Broadway production ran for a whopping 1,417 performances. It was universally hailed by the critics. New York Times critic Howard Taubman wrote, “It stings mischievously and laughs uproariously…It belongs to the blue chips among modern musicals.” [Howard Taubman, Musical Comedy Seen at 46th St. Theatre, The New York Times, October 16, 1961, http://nyti.ms/1LY7dqd] Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Post opined, “A brilliant musical comedy in which everything works out. . . . its satire, humor, book, music, lyrics, cast, staging, choreography, setting and general gaiety of spirit. . . . make the occasion a delightful event.” [How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), frankloesser.com, http://bit.ly/1nkVwDD] Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune wrote, “How to Succeed is crafty, conniving, sneaky, cynical, irreverent, impertinent, sly, malicious, and lovely, just lovely.” [Suskin, Stephen (1990). Opening Night on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre. New York: Schrimmer Books.]
And THAT was just the first Broadway production of the show. Several revivals followed, including one in 1995, with Matthew Broderick taking the lead role that had earlier been played by Robert Morse, and AGAIN winning a Tony Award for Best Acting in a Musical in what proved to be a breakout, career-making role. That production also garnered five additional Tony and Drama Desk nominations. Reviewing the 1995 production, New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, “’How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ is as fast, funny and glitzy as it ever was. . . . the musical’s skeptical wit and cheerfully amoral heart remain forever young. . . . The show’s gifts and concerns are timeless. . . . Most important, it has the marvelous Loesser score and an unusually crafty book, at the center of which is the most endearingly flawed character ever to scheme his way from window-washer to the top of the corporate ladder. He’s J. Pierrepont Finch, the role that made a star of Robert Morse and now provides the deceptively gentle-mannered Matthew Broderick with the breakout opportunity of his theatrical career. Beneath that earnest boy-next-door exterior, J. Pierrepont Finch is an epically gifted opportunist, a fellow with both eyes on the main chance when he arrives at World Wide Wicket. Mr. Broderick sings. He dances. He comes on to strangers as if he were Tom Sawyer, although he’s more like Huck Finn in a three-button suit.”
And the show was back on Broadway again in 2011, with Daniel Radcliff taking over the leading actor role , and John Larroquette winning Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Featured Actor; the 2011 production was nominated for 12 additional awards. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has also had successful national tours and overseas productions (including in London and Sydney). It should be obvious that the show has all the raw material: plot, characters, book, music, humor, etc. to consistently nurture hit productions. And that was certainly true of the production now at the Craterian.
First, a little explication about the story spun in this hilarious, satirical, tuneful, musical romp of a show, then I’ll turn to the specifics of the Craterian production. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is the story of bright, ambitious, always upbeat and optimistic window washer J. Pierpoint Finch’s meteoric rise up the corporate ladder from a lowly mailroom position to Chairman of the company at the World Wide Wicket Company, after getting his hands on a book, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” The book has advice and instructions for what to do every step of the way up the corporate ladder, and one of the clever devices of the play is that “the Book” is voiced audibly by an unseen offscreen narrator (no less than the great newscaster Walter Cronkite for the 1995 Broadway production and then CNN’s Anderson Cooper for the 2011 revival). To make it to the top, Finch has to shrewdly navigate his way among the corporate hierarchy, including self-absorbed, self-important company president, Mr. Biggley, a cohort of junior executive sycophants including personnel manager, Mr. Bratt, mailroom head Mr. Twimble, Plans and Systems Department head Mr. Gatch, and Advertising Department head, Benjamin Burton Daniel Ovington (referred to as BBDO), as well as Finch’s main adversary in his climb up the corporate ladder, the self-entitled but indolent nephew of company President Biggley, Bud Frump.
The men’s rivalries are leavened by a full complement of corporate women, including a posse of secretaries, who actually seem to do much of the real work and keep the corporate machine’s wheels on, including one (Rosemary) with immediate designs on Finch who becomes his romantic interest, one (Miss Jones) who looks after Mr. Biggley and his work, and of course, an unusually attractive airhead (Hedy LaRue) who is the amorous interest of the married Mr. Biggley. While much of this may seem uninteresting and boring, from a bare bones description like this, it is anything but, when told via biting satirical lines, catchy songs, and lively, energetic dance pieces. This show is filled with catchy tunes many of which have gone on to considerable popularity as songs in the pop and show tune world, such as Company Way, I Believe in You, and Brotherhood of Man. I COULD give you a blow by blow, of what happens in the story each step of the way as Finch advances within the company. But I’m not going to. It’s much more interesting and entertaining to watch it on the stage, being sung, danced, emoted and acted out than it is reading it from these cold dead descriptions on the page, so instead of my spoiling it for you any more than I already have, just go see the show.
Now then, about the Craterian production. The first thing I have to mention, which I have intentionally avoided up to this point, is that this run of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a Teen Musical Theater of Oregon production. It wouldn’t be unusual to react to the fact that this show is being done by teens, by jumping to the conclusion that these actors are amateurs, so this must be a mediocre production of second-rate performances. However, that would be a dead wrong assumption in this instance. Everything about the Craterian production was top notch, especially, and emphatically, the acting. The performances were universally stunningly extraordinary. First of all, somehow, somewhere, the producers of this show found a young actor named Braden Day who was exemplary in the leading role of J. Pierrepont Finch. Honest Injun, he can give Robert Morse and Matthew Broderick a run for their money. As critic Vincent Canby said about the J. Pierrepont Finch (Matthew Broderick) he reviewed, Mr. Day ably and entertainingly sings and dances his way through the role. If only this were Broadway instead of Medford, this would be a breakthrough career-making role for Mr. Day too. He has a voice which is very reminiscent of Matthew Broderick’s and if you close your eyes, you can easily imagine its Matthew Broderick voicing the role. He’s actually a better singer than Robert Morse, and his dancing and stage movements are more energetic and lively than either Mr. Broderick or Mr. Morse. One can probably chalk that up to the fact that he’s younger and has the benefit of youthful energy not available to those other actors at the points of their careers when they had the Finch role. Mr. Day’s extraordinary performance went a long ways to making this show a tremendous success, but was not alone. (Even Mr. Day said, after the performance “This was an overwhelming, amazing experience; working with this cast was just amazing.”)
The actress in the Rosemary role, Maya Patridge, who sings on six numbers including three notable solo songs (Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm, Rosemary’s Philosophy, and Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm reprise) has a fine set of pipes on her. She really sings swell, no warbling, but beautiful tuneful, well enunciated singing. Worthy of a lounge singer passionately conveying torch songs – bringing the house down, which she did several times in this show. The two primary feature male roles, Mr. Biggley and Bud Frump were well handled, respectively by Josiah Arthur and Evan Sheets. Mr. Arthur was a very believable Mr. Biggley and appeared to be having great fun with it along the way (whether getting enthusiastic about his alma mater’s fight song with Finch or sharing an amorous musical moment, while dueting on Love From a Heart of Gold with Hedy), which tended to make the performance that much more enjoyable. Mr. Sheets was something else again. At one point, he had the audience mesmerized by performing a juggling routine alone on stage with a set of boxes; the room quaked with audible oohs and ahs each time he flipped and caught another set of boxes. Tiasie MacKenzie was a hoot as Biggley’s bimbo, Hedy LaRue. She had great timing and comic sense in delivering her lines and convincingly playing the airhead role (easier to be one, than to effectively play one, and for sure, she isn’t, but she did a great job.)
The corporate cohort: Gabe Fitzpatrick as Gatch, Holden Jones as Jenkins, Grayson Weaver as Tackaberry, Zavier Bodager as Peterson, Justus Armstrong as Bratt, Jackson Werner as Twimble, Ethan Hoefling as Ovington, and Riley Hackett as Whomper all comported themselves well – there wasn’t one clunker among them. The women segment of the corporate family were just as good: Natalie Koenig as Smitty, Hannah Schneider as Miss Jones, Annie Craven as Miss Krumholz and the duo Madeline Chun and Samantha Alftine as the office’s scrubwomen, all rendered well done believable performances; nothing second-rate or amateurish about any of them. In fact, the entire ensemble deserves kudos for very nice work – the big scale production dance numbers were great, including The Company Way, A Secretary Is Not A Toy, Paris Original, and the Finale for both Acts. Giving acknowledgement to ALL who earned it, I want to applaud the rest of the acting company who contributed their talents and energy to making this show a success: Amber Clayton, Andrew Cutler, Anton Drummond, Brendon Hackeet, Carson Hall, Cassie Goldman, Coby Allred, Darci Layer, Elizyannah Jennings, Ellie Blount, Imani Ward, Kandace Looper, Lauren Sheets, Madalynne Hackett, Meaghan Fitzpatrick, Megan Mayerle, Naomi Bigboy, Noelle Murray, Paige Brooks, Patrick Cutler, Phoebe Olstad, Ryan Cutler, Ryan Weeks, Sarah Reed, Savannah Taylor, Sidney Kondziela, Sofia Villarreal, Sydney Williamson and Tucker Chestine.
Finally, a word about the stagecraft for this show: impressive. The sets were stunning, very professional and very well done. Little touches added big results, like a pair of working sliding elevator doors on opposite sides of the set. Large set pieces were dropped from the flies, to provide backdrops for the Mail Room, Board Room, the row of bathroom sinks and faux mirrors for the Executive Washroom, etc. There was a huge treasure chest from which the Treasure Hunt Girls emerged mid stage, apparently through a trap door in the middle of the stage. Office furniture, desks, sofas and other set pieces were well designed so as to be quickly movable on stage and off – with the result that transitions between scenes were quick and seamless without continuity-disrupting delay. The lighting was spectacular – you can see the different color schemes in the photos accompanying this article. What you cannot see is the incredibly effective use of a spotlight to highlight Finch’s moments of great insights and victories. You just have to SEE it in the show; it defies adequate verbal explanation.
Also wonderful was the sound amplification. Principal singers/actors were mic’d and amplified and it was done perfectly – everyone could be heard, nothing was too loud or peaking, AND it was all very clear. Not so easy to do with such a large, active and energetic cast, but really well done in this show. Costumes too were very good. Of special note were the women’s dresses in the humorous Paris Original number, and Treasure Hunt costumes for Hedy and the Treasure Hunt Girls.
Three more quick but not minor acknowledgements: The singing was universally superb; not only were the individual singers noteworthy for superior singing, but the ensemble numbers were terrific, tight, together, on pitch, near perfect, for which the fine work of Music Director Michael Wing must be acknowledged. (Aside – Mr. Wing added one more fine piece of work to this show, serving as the Voice of the Book, the role filled in earlier Broadway productions by Walter Cronkite and Anderson Cooper. Kudos for doing THAT well, Mr. Wing!) The dances throughout the show, by individuals, pairs, and ensembles, were consistently energetic, entertaining and gracefully athletic. For that, a tip of the hat goes out to choreographer Cailey McCandless and Dance Captain Hannah Schneider. Finally, last but certainly not least, a show this good, with so many cast members, and so many excellent production values just couldn’t ever come together so well without some deft, skilled direction, which was provided for this show by Doug Warner – very fine work indeed Mr. Warner.
If you ARE reading this on March 4, 2016, there are two more performances and opportunities to get to see How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Craterian Theatre in Medford: Friday evening, March 4 at 7:30 pm and Saturday afternoon, March 5, at 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://www.craterian.org/, or call the box office at 541-779-3000, or in person at 16 S. Bartlett, Medford, OR 97501. If you are reading this after March 5, 2016, Teen Music Theater of Oregon’s next production will be Disney’s The Little Mermaid on August 5-6 and 11-13, 2016 at the Craterian Theatre. Auditions for that show will be held on June 4, 2016. For more information, check http://www.craterian.org/.